Kaiser Permanente announced on June 3 that it would cease purchasing furniture for its facilities that contain flame retardants. Kaiser Permanente is one of the country’s largest not-for-profit health plans, with over 9 million members and hundreds of facilities, which is why the decision is so troubling.
Patients are among the most vulnerable populations in our communities. In emergencies, such as fires, evacuating patients from health care facilities is far more challenging and complex than other evacuations. According to the U.S. Fire Administration, “Medical facility fires affect a vulnerable population, as many patients in medical facilities may not have the independence to escape a fire incident.”
This is why statistics around fires in medical facilities is so worrying. According to the National Fire Protection Agency, fire departments responded to an average of 6,240 structure fires in health care facilities per year—approximately 17 per day.
Because of the particular danger of fire for patients, the National Fire Protection Agency recommends that “proper care must be taken to ensure that safety measures and regulations are adhered to for all medical facilities.”
Flame retardants are a critical component of fire protection, and their use has helped the health care industry protect patients over the years. By choosing to buy furniture without these safeguards, Kaiser Permanente could be putting the very patients it is meant to protect and heal at risk.
In response to the decision by Kaiser Permanente, the North American Flame Retardant Alliance (NAFRA) today sent a letter signed by President and CEO of the American Chemistry Council, Cal Dooley, to Kaiser Permanente CEO Bernard Tyson, urging him to reverse course:
Flame retardants are an important tool in the fire safety tool box…. The use of flame retardants in upholstered furniture can help prevent fires from starting and/or slow the rate at which small fires become big fires, providing valuable time for persons to escape danger.
The letter states that flame retardants have played a measurable role in reducing the prevalence of fires across the country and have helped protect vulnerable communities, including the sick and elderly:
[Flame retardants] represent an important layer of fire protection in hospitals, health care facilities, and medical offices. Their use has helped the health care industry achieve a low incidence of fire-related deaths and injuries, despite the fact that an estimated 6,240 fires (about 17 fires per day) occur in health care facilities annually…. By prohibiting flame retardants in furniture at its facilities, Kaiser will increase its reliance on technologies designed to reduce the effects of a fire after it has started (e.g., sprinklers), rather than preventing fires from starting in the first place.
Kaiser Permanente’s press release raised concerns about chemical safety, but it’s important to remember that all new flame retardants are subject to review by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other global regulatory bodies. Just last year, the EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention noted that it had identified approximately 50 flame retardant chemicals that are “unlikely to pose a risk to human health.”
Because flame retardants can help protect vulnerable populations and because they are subject to oversight, Kaiser Permanente should not sacrifice fire safety in its facilities.